“At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet. And a freight train running through the middle of my head…”
I consider this all the proof I need that I’ve slept with Bruce Springsteen. I mean, how else could he so perfectly capture the feeling of nighttime panic unless he’s been right there with me?
The freelance lifestyle can be a perfect fit for many of us: Knowing a project you’re trudging through will eventually end, knowing a triumphant one will fire you up to take on more. It’s the joy of not knowing what each day holds juxtaposed with the fear of, well, not knowing what each day holds. But it’s always at night that the freight train of uncertainty heads through.
Of course, nighttime panic isn’t just the territory of freelancers. We all experience fear of failure as well as doubt about our abilities. But a freelancer has to shoulder it without coworkers or reliable infrastructure that the 9-to-5 grind brings. We freelancers find it harder to call it a day and put parameters around our time and it’s harder too to find the balm of security to soothe those nighttime fears about money and future work.
Still, figuring out how to soothe that angst is a necessity for a successful freelance career: If you want to save yourself and your business, you must craft a plan to manage both your work and your personal time. Nurturing one will feed the other. So… what can you do when that nighttime panic set in?
You can head off many of the night scrambles by being disciplined during your workday. Set up your financial records and take them seriously. Put a space between your personal system and your business one.
Find an accounting system (I hear good things about FreshBooks!) that’s clear and easy to use. You should never underestimate the sense of accomplishment you get from having your books in order. Don’t wait until tax time every year to start sorting through the mess. If times are lean, or you’re just starting out, this may seem premature. But it’s far easier to establish a system with little in it. Then, you’re prepared when the millions start to roll in.
In addition to being your own Accounting department, you are also officially your own IT department, your own Human Resources department, your own Marketing department and your own Complaints department.
Keeping the details of your own corporate structure – even if it’s tiny – clear means less time spent chasing lost marbles. In the middle of the night you can only slay one dragon at a time; don’t make yourself face ones who never had to make an appearance in the first place.
This one is admittedly tougher, and I’m not going to lie, it often gets the best of me. But you can retrain your brain. Grab the panic by the tail and turn it around.
You are unlikely to solve whatever is keeping you up in this moment, so teach your brain to do other things. I rebuild entire decks in my mind. I plot out gardens and do yard work, methodically mapping out each step. One novelist I know shingles his roof and repairs the engines on his cars. All to mute the tumble of noise that is threatening to leave you mentally exhausted; tire your brain out another way.
Remember you might defeat your emotional health by ignoring your physical wellbeing. So shut down the email, be judicious with pharmaceutical sleep aids and take your body for a walk or a workout.
Unpack whether your problem is getting to sleep or staying asleep; if that relaxing glass of wine at bedtime turns into two, know that for many people, that second one is often what triggers the 2am wide awakes.
One of my exes and I gave each other half an hour at the end of a work day to vent; his job was often predictable but frustrating, mine was usually unpredictable and frustrating. But we both recognized it would be too easy for both of us to infect every other part of our relationship with angst or anger over something beyond the other’s control.
Likewise, your children will inhale your insecurity like air and retain it long after you’ve let it out. There is sharing and there is oversharing; if you’re stressing out those you turn to for support, it’s time to find an independent third party to unburden yourself to.
Snap on the light and grab a book. Some nights just aren’t going to end any other way, so give in. I highly recommend Proust or James Joyce’s Ulysses. After an English degree and three decades, I’m still no closer to make top nor tail of either one, but they remain on my beside table like stone lions guarding my sanity.
They’re also useful for when Bruce is busy.